Philadelphia 76ers top assistant coach Dave Joerger is leaving the team for several weeks to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments for a form of “head and neck” cancer, Joerger told ESPN.
Joerger, 47, has undergone treatments while coaching for the past two weeks — missing only one road game — but the Sixers’ extended road trip requires him to step away and stay back for treatments in Philadelphia, he said.
Joerger told the Sixers players, assistant coaches and staff of his cancer in a post-game meeting after Saturday night’s loss to the Pacers in Indiana. He had already told a small group of Sixers officials — including coach Doc Rivers, President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey and owner Josh Harris — of his recent diagnoses.
“Dave is not only one of the most talented and respected coaches in the NBA, but he’s a great friend, colleague, husband and father,” Rivers said in a statement. “The same positivity, enthusiasm and grit that have made him a successful coach will also carry him through his fight against cancer.”
Joerger, who says he has Stage 1 cancer, described his prognosis prior to Saturday’s game on ESPN’s “The Woj Pod” podcast.
“We have caught it early,” Joerger told ESPN. “I’m very lucky. I’ve got over a 90 percent chance of cure rate, but it’s very scary and it’s not enjoyable going through. …I can’t go on the road and do radiation and chemotherapy in different cities around the country. To continue my treatment, I need to step away from the team.”
Joerger noticed a lump in his throat approximately 15 months ago and alerted his Memphis-based physician. After a scan returned negative, he kept monitoring the lump and worried that it wasn’t getting smaller. Five weeks ago, he called his doctor with renewed concerns.
“I stare at my face every morning when I shave and I’m very sensitive … that I know that [the lump’s] there,” Joerger told ESPN. “…We do another scan, and it’s one of those days that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. We were in Toronto, and he texted me and said: ‘We need to talk. Let’s just get it done right now.'”
Part of Joerger’s decision to make his cancer diagnosis public is the chance to encourage people to pursue early detection — including regular examinations and alerting doctors immediately like he did when something seemed wrong with his body. “You’ve got to take action,” Joerger said.
Joerger has built a reputation as one of the league’s most innovative offensive tacticians in his time as an assistant and head coach. Joerger reached the Western Conference playoffs in each of his three seasons as the Memphis Grizzlies head coach, including a trip to the Western Conference semifinals in 2015. He left Memphis to become the Sacramento Kings head coach in 2016, where he coached three more seasons.
He was 245-247 (.498) overall as a head coach and 9-13 (.409) in the playoffs. Before reaching the NBA as an assistant in Memphis in 2007, Joerger worked his way through basketball’s minor leagues — including two now-defunct leagues, the Continental Basketball Association and United States Basketball League.
Joerger credited Rivers and the Sixers organization for supporting him since the diagnosis and pushing him to take all the time that he needs away from the team. “The first two weeks of radiation are not terrible,” Joerger told ESPN. “What will happen, in seven weeks total of treatment, it keeps compounding onto itself ….You can hear me now — I don’t sound great.
“But it’s only going to get worse as far as [my] ability to swallow, [my] ability to speak, [my] ability to keep food down. It’s been enjoyable coming to work, but at times it can be a little strenuous.”